The sharp corners and sleek busyness of a typical building are nowhere to be found. Instead, DoGoodHouse has an interesting arched structure, with fan-like latticework on the windows and textured walls. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Do you remember how your childhood self felt when playing hide-and-seek? Your home became an amusement park, filled with interesting and mysterious nooks and crannies. DoGoodHouse feels something like that.
The sharp corners and sleek busyness of a typical building are nowhere to be found. Instead, the house has an interesting arched structure, with fan-like latticework on the windows and textured walls.
Owner Hoch Ho built the home with labor from a team of students from Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School and National Taiwan University, and neighboring farmers. Erected over the course of three months in 2008, it earned Ho, a novice builder, the top prize at the first Taiwan Green Architecture Design Awards, and thrust him into the national spotlight.
The resultant renown has drawn many visitors to DoGoodHouse. Ho welcomes group after group of them, ours included, into his home during the hottest part of the summer.
A former mathematics teacher, he retains some of a teacher’s authoritative bearing. Before bringing us into the house, he leads our group to the beach to do a bit of cleanup, requesting that everyone pick up one of the plastic bottles washed up on the shore.
Asked about the connection between beach cleanup and DoGoodHouse, he explains that he first came to the area to grow vegetables. When he wasn’t gardening, he would often walk the beach picking up trash. Locals called him an idiot for his efforts, but he kept at it for two or three years.
A conversation with God
He says he wasn’t happy in those days.
Born into poverty, Ho had studied hard, earned a PhD from National Taiwan University’s Department of Engineering Science and Ocean Engineering, and founded his own cram school. He married, had two daughters, and became more conventionally successful than most of his peers.
But he began to have doubts about his path, wondering, “Is life just about earning more and more money?” Entering what should have been his “stable” forties, he instead experienced an early midlife crisis. Seeking an outlet for his feelings, he began setting out at four or five o’clock every morning for a round of golf, eventually playing all the courses in northern Taiwan.
This continued until one day, while playing a north-coast course, a golfing buddy wondered aloud: “Why do we spend so much time making money we’ll never use?” The moment marked a turning point in Ho’s life, leading him to ask himself: “If I had only one year left to live, what would matter most to me?”
The answer that came to him was his family’s health.
His love for the scenery along Taiwan’s north coast prompted him to buy a patch of land there, nestled between the mountains and the shore, to grow healthy vegetables to feed his family. The decision started what he calls a “silent dialogue with God.”
Making marine waste useful
An amateur farmer, Ho admits that at first he had no idea what he was doing. Over time, he adopted the “sandwich” method of preparing the ground. This involves placing a layer of kitchen waste and grain husks between two layers of organic soil, and turns troublesome kitchen waste into useful fertilizer that, surprisingly, doesn’t stink.
He also observed that the marine trash washed up by the tides came not just from Taiwan, but also from the coastal provinces of mainland China. As the mainland’s development progressed, trash from its interior began to appear as well. Ho’s painstaking beach cleanup efforts filled three large bags with trash every day.
Trained as an engineer, Ho seeks solutions to the problems he encounters.
In this case, there was always more trash, no matter how much he picked up. His solution: “You have to turn something harmful to the Earth into something helpful to it.” If people could turn trash into something useful, something they could use in their everyday lives, they could reduce the volume of trash.
You often find large and small fishing net floats washed up on the shore. Ho took them and, with a little bit of effort, turned them into round lanterns and speakers. They were so cute, he even received an inquiry from a gallery about jointly selling them.
He also found inspiration in the huge volume of styrofoam trash: turn waste styrofoam boxes into plant boxes. He stacked them, growing vegetables in the upper layer and storing water in the lower. He also connected the two layers with nylon cords, using capillary action to draw the stored water into the soil, enabling the plants to subsist entirely on rainfall.
Building a “natural” house
Since he was spending large amounts of time working in his vegetable patch, Ho decided to build a hut to rest in. He then thought that as long as he was building a hut, he might as well learn something about construction.
The summer heat, winter cold, humidity and saltiness of the air at the shore, and pollution from passing traffic, were challenging issues, but also spurred his imagination.
Ho decided to go with a vaulted structure, a form described by the quadratic functions kids learn in middle-school math. Shaped something like an igloo, the home was designed to withstand typhoons ranging up to force 17 on the extended Beaufort scale and earthquakes measuring up to intensity 8.
The temperature was near 40°C on the day we visited, and a line of people waited impatiently to get inside DoGoodHouse. The secret of the energy-saving home’s warmth in winter and coolness in summer can be found in middle-school physics.
First of all, the home isn’t built from reinforced concrete, but rather recycled sandy soil, which is a good insulator. It also has openings for ventilation both low and high. The lower vents are on the southwestern side of the home to draw in the prevailing summer winds, which are cooled by their passage across the turf outside. The upper vents expel hot air, keeping the interior comfortable in the summer. There are no vents on the northeastern side of the home, which helps keep out the prevailing winter winds.
Ho built up the home’s curves by layering material, and then covered the walls in a porous water-based nanometer coating. He says that this enables the building to “breathe,” allowing hot air and moisture to pass freely in and out. Finally, he painted the exterior with a photocatalyst that naturally breaks down oils and animal waste, which has kept the home looking as good as new for the 12 years since it was built.
The time Ho spent picking up trash from the beach enabled him to heal and rebuild himself, body and soul.
“When I only cared about myself, I was my whole world. But when I began to do things for other people, I was making those people happy. I was only a small part of the world, so even when I was personally unhappy, I was happy for them.”
DoGoodHouse’s site isn’t just a vegetable patch. It’s also a place for Ho to promote his vision of environmental conservation, green building, and new farming practices, a place for him to experiment and innovate. He has dedicated himself to this new endeavor since persuading his family to sell their company and retiring six years ago.
A different kind of classroom
We spend another afternoon with Ho at Taipei’s Bo Ai Elementary School, in a bustling neighborhood near Taipei 101.
There, he shows us a wide footbridge connecting two of the school’s buildings. Once nothing more than an open concrete space bathed in blistering sunlight, it was hated by the students who had to cross it.
Ho installed grass on a raised platform along one side, its green representing nearby Elephant Mountain. On the other side, he shaped three rows of planters into rings. He explains that their varying heights are meant to represent the neighborhood’s high-rises, and that the herbs growing within them cycle with the seasons. He also tells us that the whole arrangement uses only rainwater, and requires little labor to maintain.
Ho has also worked on water resources at Heping Elementary School in the suburban Shiding District of New Taipei City. The system he designed for the school routes water from mountain springs and graywater from hand sinks to an eco pond, where it is purified using a combination of water plants and aeration. From there the water goes to the school’s paddling pool, before irrigating terraced paddies.
The design possesses environmental, agricultural and scientific dimensions, and Ho describes it as a way to plant ideas in kids’ heads without lecturing them.
Retired but still active, Ho sees schools as a means of promoting his ideas. Though his projects often take him away from home, he lights up when talking about what he and the kids get out of their interactions.
Does he still play golf? “I don’t have any time to, nor really any interest,” says Ho. Instead, he’s found a purpose that brings him joy.